Why 2020 to 2050 Will Be ‘the Most Transformative Decades in Human History’

Climate change will force more people to leave their homes than at any other point in human history. Conflict is inevitable.

Photo: Aliraza Khatri’s Photography/Moment/Getty Images

The 30 years from 2020 to 2050 will be among the most transformative decades in all of human history. Collapsing ice sheets, the aerosol crisis, and rising sea levels will force more people to leave their homes than at any other point in human history. In some places, that means conflict is inevitable.

A study from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that higher temperatures and shifting patterns of extreme weather can cause a rise in all types of violence, from domestic abuse to civil wars. In extreme cases, it could cause countries to cease functioning and collapse altogether.

This ominous reality of climate change is far from fated, however. A rapidly changing environment just makes conflict more likely, not inevitable. People, ultimately, are still in control. Our choices determine whether or not these conflicts will happen. In a world where we’ve rapidly decided to embark on constructing an ecological society, we’ll have developed countless tools of conflict avoidance as part of our climate change adaptation strategies.

Still, there will be those who choose to live outside the mainstream society who may pose an existential threat to the rest of us. Some groups and a few rogue countries will try to prevent the rest of the world’s transition toward ecological and social justice. They will do this either because of the lingering influence from the dwindling fossil fuel industry, or because of a fascist ideological response to climate change that puts human rights at risk, or out of desperation.

Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate essayist and advocate for intersectional approaches to racial and environmental justice, is inspired particularly by Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower for an example of how things could go very badly. In the book, Butler describes fire-obsessed cults that spring up in a post–rapid climate change world, craving some sense amid the destruction and chaos they see all around them. Heglar thinks that could be just the beginning. “The future I see is really ugly unless something very, very drastic changes,” Heglar told me. “It’s a world where people find many, many different ways, very creative ways, to be cruel to one another. Unpredictability brings out people’s cruelty if you’re not careful. And most people are not careful.”

Heglar specifically thinks of the racial massacre in East Saint Louis, Illinois, in 1917 as an example of the kind of violence that might emerge if the world is not careful. Angry white mobs murdered dozens of Black people after they were hired in place of striking workers at factories during World War I. If lifesaving technology is not distributed fairly, or if governments lean too heavily on austerity along racial lines, or if climate disasters fragment already vulnerable populations, the result could be truly ugly.

“So many things that we think are impossible today could be completely normal in 20 years,” Heglar told me. “I hear people saying now that ‘when it gets really bad, I’ll just move to New Zealand or I’ll move to Sweden, where climate change impact is not going to be that drastic.’ But it’s not going to be cute there. First of all, it’s going to be mostly the 1% living there. So if you think your regular ass is gonna be able to buy land in New Zealand, good luck.”

An escapist attitude is probably the most dangerous reaction to climate change today. It drives to the heart of how the problem of climate change came into being in the first place: By imagining ourselves as individuals who somehow exist outside the context of an interconnected, living ecosystem on a planet where all of our actions deeply affect one another, we fail to see each other’s humanity and right to simply exist. It’s the same attitude that drives the richest men in the world today to create their own private space agencies. Those who are already being affected by the climate emergency can’t and won’t simply be left to fend for themselves while the privileged few plot their escape plans — to higher ground in their neighborhood, to inland mountain refuges, to Mars.

Until we build a world that works for everyone, we’ll continue to have people whose survival is systematically erased by those in power. That’s the dystopia for the rich and powerful: a world where the rest of us finally realize the power we had all along to fight for a justice-focused society.

It will take active, conscious effort to defuse the tensions sure to arise in a warming world. Overcoming a coordinated effort by the fossil fuel industry to save itself is not going to be easy, but we know it’s coming. That effort has been going on since the fossil fuel industry began, and it won’t just go away in the 2040s, even amid two decades of radical and hopeful changes. As always, our best hope will remain that we can prepare along the way to increase the chances of a peaceful transition to a fossil-free world.

We know that the weather in the 2040s will be worse than it is today. A major, sudden change, like a collapsing ice sheet or a quick rise in global temperatures after eliminating aerosols, would make the weather even more destructive than current predictions, even if we are able to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What we can control, of course, is how we decide to respond to the worsening weather.

Since my conversation years ago with Rear Admiral David Titley, I’ve repeated his idea of “catastrophic success” over and over to myself when I think things can’t get any worse, and I’ve let it shape my view of how the world could quickly change beyond our wildest imaginations — for the better. Titley sees the warming world both as a scientist (he’s a meteorologist by training) and as a former military officer. He understands that the potential for a massive increase in refugees is a heartbreaking and almost inevitable looming humanitarian crisis due to the science of the escalating severity of droughts, floods, and severe weather we’ve already seen in recent decades and the historical tendency for leaders to close borders during times of crisis. A worsening of this trend could make the world practically ungovernable in our lifetimes.

The U.S. military has been among the first large-scale entities to recognize this. That kind of makes sense if you consider its mission of ensuring U.S. safety and prosperity continues for as long as possible: Without planetary stability, there is no U.S. stability. That’s part of why U.S. military strategists at the Pentagon have begun calling climate change a “threat multiplier.”

When Titley talks about migration, though, even he struggles to put the stakes in context. In the 2040s, if global sea levels rise by three feet and droughts, fires, heat waves, and floods continue to worsen, we could see around 250 million people forced from their homes. That’s about four times as many people as are currently displaced and about 50 times as many as were displaced during the Syrian civil war. In short, it would challenge our understanding of nationality, borders, and politics as usual.

“Post–World War II,” Titley told me, “tens of millions of people within Europe were on forced migration in the 1940s. We kind of gloss over that part of history. I mean, Europe was really bad after World War II. It’s part of what got the Marshall Plan. I think it really kind of scared us that, hey, this whole place is just collapsing, basically, and something had to be done.”

An uncontrolled, unanticipated climate-related migration crisis could be even worse than the refugee crisis after World War II, which, despite its horrors, displaced less than 1% of the world’s population. Climate change could displace three times that amount just in the next two or three decades. Although displacement due to extreme weather is already becoming increasingly common, the proximate cause of displacement and migration is usually fleeing violent conflict. How do we anticipate a world that could quickly fracture and urgently work to reduce the risk of violent conflict before it occurs?

A crisis like this will require proactive harm reduction on a civilizational scale. We will need to establish policies that encourage, rather than restrict, freedom of movement. And we must establish robust social safety nets so that families are less likely to abandon their homes in search of a place where they can simply live. Also, even before we reach zero emissions globally, we will have to recognize the need to take aggressive actions to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All of this will remain just as urgent in the 2040s as in 2020.

“I’m probably wrong,” Titley said, “but I’m actually more optimistic that we are going to do real things now than I have been for a long, long time. I think there’s actual legitimate cause for optimism.”

Specifically, Titley pointed to the steady shift away from outright denial among rank-and-file members of the Republican Party as evidence that attitudes can shift toward action, no matter how meager. And once that facade of climate denial breaks, an avalanche of action could soon follow. “We may be much closer to catastrophic success right now. Things can change, and not always for the worse. They can change for the better. It can happen very, very quickly.”

From the book ‘The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming’ by Eric Holthaus. Copyright © 2020 by Eric Holthaus. Reprint by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Meteorologist | Climate correspondent

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